Saturday, December 26, 2009

Alex and Me

Last night I finished reading Dr. Irene Pepperberg's book, Alex and Me. If you are curious about her work, check out The Alex Foundation. I was recently given the book by someone who knows I share my home with Toby, and African Grey parrot.

Pepperberg weaves her own life story with the research discoveries made during over 30 years of study with African Grey parrots. Through exhaustive and rigorous research Pepperberg demonstrated the amazing cognitive abilities of the African Grey. Among other things, she demonstrated that he possessed  more than 100 vocal labels for objects, actions, and colors; could identify some objects by what material they were made of; could count sets of objects up to six; developed his own "zero-like" concept; could infer connections between written numbers, object sets, and the vocalization of the number; and had the concept of phonemes which are the sounds that make up words.

A pretty impressive bird!

However, I was more struck by Pepperberg herself. Her personal story, as revealed by her book, is not an easy one. Her research has not always been popular or well received by peers. Funding for her work has not come easily. Despite the difficulties, she stuck with her passion and her science, opening up a window into the unseen world of nature.

I finished the book thinking of how often the unconventional, unorthodox, or different viewpoint is squashed by a society that values sameness. While we often give lip-service to diversity, we very rarely celebrate it or encourage it. I was left thinking about how much we lose when the chorus of the masses drown out a new voice asking us to see something in a different way.

I'm glad Dr. Pepperberg used her voice and opened up a new world of discovery for all of us. I hope we all find a way to learn by her example and find the courage to pursue our individual voices in a disciplined, organized, and thoughtful way.

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